Concentrates and vapor pens are among some of the fastest growing markets in the cannabis industry.
In fact, the market for concentrates and vapor pens has increased by 145.6 percent between 2014 and 2016 in Washington state alone.
Most often made using solvents to strip the herb’s essential oils from plant material, concentrates are most often used in vaporization or inhaled via special “rigs” used for instant vaporization of oils.
In general, vaporization is considered a far safer alternative to cannabis smoking. In fact, the first long-term, peer-reviewed study on the subject was published in early 2017 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
After examining blood and urine samples from 181 participants, British researchers discovered that those who switched to vaporization and electronic cigarettes showed significantly lower levels of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals than consumers who smoked.
Yet, some experts are calling bluff on the idea that all cannabis vape pens are safe.
Why? The quality of vapor pens can range wildly depending on how a cannabis concentrate was processed and made.
Fortunately, there’s some good news. Not all vape pens carry the same safety risks.
Here are five things to consider when looking for a safe vapor pen:
1. Some vape pens contain harmful additives
As it turns out, some vape pens may not be so safe.
In a 2017 report published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that certain common additives to vapor pens may pose health risks.
The two additives in question? Propylene glycol (PG) and polyethylene glycol (PEG).
Both substances are commonly added to e-juice and vapor cartridges to thin out an otherwise thick, honey-like material.
Unfortunately, while these additives are generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) they can transform into more dangerous substances when heated to the point of combustion.
The point of combustion for cannabis products is 446F (230C).
Specifically, PG and PEG are both converted to the known carcinogen formaldehyde with heat.
Formaldehyde is also used to preserve cadavers for scientific experimentation and is a well-known lung and skin irritant.
Fortunately, the study found that other additives like vegetable glycerine did not pose a health risk.
The study found that MCT oils can break down into a carcinogen known as acetaldehyde when exposed to high heats, but levels of acetaldehyde from MCT oils were still 33 times less than that found in PEG.
Hoping to play it safe with vapor pens? Opt for products that list their ingredients and do not contain PG or PEG.
2. Concentrates may contain higher levels of pesticide contaminants
Vapor cartridges, e-juices, and other types of cannabis concentrates are more likely to contain residual pesticide contaminants than flower.
Why? A batch of cannabis concentrate may be equivalent to several pounds of cannabis flowers.
While one of those flowers individually may not contain unsafe levels of pesticide, a highly concentrated oil made after extracting resin from a great many plants may be more problematic.
Cannabis extractions concentrate resin, including pesticides that may be attached to that resin. Therefore, a vapor cartridge or BHO extraction is more likely to contain more concentrated quantities of contaminants.
In fact, a 2015 study published in the Journal of Toxicological Sciences found that up to 80 percent of over 57 samples of California cannabis concentrates contained unsafe levels of residual pesticide.
Hoping to avoid pesticides in cannabis products? Opt for brands that third-party batch test their products and post the results online.
3. Concentrates contain very different terpenes than dried flower
Concentrates, e-liquids, and vapor cartridges are not exactly the same as cannabis flower.
While concentrates, vapor pens, and e-liquids may be labeled under the same strain names, the extraction process eliminates and alters many of the terpene aroma molecules found inside whole cannabis flower.
In a Washington state study comparing dried cannabis flower to subcritical CO2 extractions, the most common type of extract used in vapor pens, Dr. Michelle Sexton and her team found that the terpene concentrations differed significantly between the two products.
The study concluded:
Our results demonstrate that the product of SC-CO2 extraction may have a significantly different chemotypic fingerprint from that of cannabis flower. These results highlight the need for more complete characterization of cannabis and associated products, beyond cannabinoid content, in order to further understand health-related consequences of inhaling or ingesting concentrated forms.
What’s more, the preservation of terpenes is important, especially for medical cannabis consumers. Terpene aroma molecules are bioactive, meaning that they can have a therapeutic effect on the body.
Both THC and CBD are thought of as the primary active components in the plant.
Further, no research has been done that tests the effect on highly concentrated, inhaled, and heated terpenes.
Because no research exists on this subject, little is known about how these concentrated oils actually interact with the body.
These facts are what led Dr. Sexton and her team to suggest that more research on the effects of inhaled cannabis concentrates are sorely needed.
Of course, vaporizing flower or monitoring how products affect you as an individual can perhaps provide some relief from these potential concerns.
4. Vaporization temperature matters
Depending on what type of vape pen you have, you may actually be combusting e-liquid or concentrate instead of vaporizing.
True vaporization happens at low temperatures. However, vapor pens and vaporizers that allow consumers to use high heat settings may be more similar to a portable smoking device.
As mentioned above, the point of combustion for cannabis oils is 446F (230C).
Yet, the ideal point of combustion to preserve the most terpenes and cannabinoids is thought to be around 330F (165C), with some variation depending on consumer preference.
Combusting any plant, including cannabis, releases carcinogens. Whether or not these carcinogens make a person ill depends entirely on the individual.
Immune-compromised individuals may want to be particularly wary of temperature when they’re vaporizing.
In times of illness, anything that can contribute to damage in the body is well worth avoiding.
Opting for lower temperature vaporization is a way to reduce harms in this situation.
5. Many vaporizers use plastics
Another thing to consider with vape pen safety is the vape pen hardware itself.
Many disposable will vape pens still use plastics close to heating elements.
While most vape pen plastics are used in vaporizer pens are considered “heat safe,” it’s well-known that plastics can outgas chemical compounds with unknown risks when heated.
Generally speaking, outgassing is thought to be more of a concern with softer plastics than with harder ones.
Still, outgassing is still something to think about when it comes to plastics used around heat.
Some plastics are made using the known endocrine disrupting pollutant bisphenol A (BPA), which mimics the hormone estrogen in the body.
While BPA has been replaced by different chemical compounds, many replacement molecules have not been as widely studied and the overall health effects of inhaling various plastic off-gas are unknown.
Similarly, some disposable cartridges may use heating elements that contain impure or low-quality metals, without much knowledge of how heating and inhaling these metals affect the body.
Still, like many other concerns about vape pen safety, finding higher quality products is possible.
Opting for products that list their vapor pen materials or using refillable vape cartridges made with glass and other safe items may reduce your risk of inhaling environmental chemicals with unknown side effects.